With the recent news of the brutal execution of twenty-one Coptic Christians by ISIL, the Western world has witnessed and acknowledged an act of barbarity that it often ignores, but which is still all too common in the world—the murder of Christians for their Christian beliefs. Reading the statement by Mr. Barack Obama on the matter, it appears many still do not want to admit or speak of Christians being persecuted and killed for their faith. No where in his statement are the words Coptic or Christian; it is just “twenty-one Egyptian citizens.”
But granted that they were indeed killed because the ISIL militants deemed them enemies of Islam on account of their Christian profession, should we, as Catholics, recognize them as martyrs?
In an interview given back at the end of 2013, Pope Francis seemed to answer in the affirmative:
Today there is an ecumenism of blood. In some countries they kill Christians … and before they kill them they do not ask them whether they are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox. Their blood is mixed. To those who kill we are Christians. We are united in blood … I knew a parish priest in Hamburg who was dealing with the beatification cause of a Catholic priest guillotined by the Nazis for teaching children the catechism. After him, in the list of condemned individuals, was a Lutheran pastor who was killed for the same reason. Their blood was mixed. The parish priest told me he had gone to the bishop and said to him: “I will continue to deal with the cause, but both of their causes, not just the Catholic priest’s.” This is what ecumenism of blood is. It still exists today; you just need to read the newspapers. Those who kill Christians don’t ask for your identity card to see which Church you were baptised in.
This contrasts, however, with the teaching of the Church as enunciated in the Council of Florence, in the Bull on Union with the Copts:
[The Sacred Roman Church] firmly believes, professes, and preaches that no one existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews, heretics and schismatics can become partakers of eternal life, but shall go into the eternal fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before the end of their lives they join themselves to her, and that the unity of the Church body is so necessary that only for the Christian soldier that remains in her do the church’s sacraments profit for salvation, and fasts, almsgiving and the rest of pious works and exercises produce eternal rewards, and that no one, however much alms he has give, and even if he has shed his blood for the name of Christ, can be saved unless he remain in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.
It seems to be a very harsh statement. We are loathe, of course, to do anything other than honor the victims of such a heinous act. And to deny their status as martyrs appears to many to demean their death. Yet, that reaction is largely based on focusing specifically on their status as victims and the evil of their murderers.
Consider the following unrelated and extreme case, for illustrative purposes. Suppose that Bob goes to church every day and appears to all to be a faithful Christian, but, in reality, is engaged in wicked acts of debauchery every night. Suppose he does not even believe in God at all, but pretends at it for some temporal benefit. If he were killed by a militant anti-Christian who killed him for his Christian profession, would that suddenly make him a good Christian? Would it gain him entry into heaven and blot out his sins?
Of course I am not at all suggesting that those twenty-one victims of ISIL were like Bob. I do not know what they were like. But what we can see in the example is that we cannot make a judgment on martyrdom based purely on what evil action was done by another. The fact that one is murdered and that the murderer is motivated for anti-Christian reasons does not, itself, suffice to make on a martyr.
St. Thomas identifies martyrdom as a perfection of the infused virtue of fortitude. Its great merit comes from this, that “martyrdom… most demonstrates the perfection of charity, since someone is shown to love a thing to the degree that what he will despise for it is more beloved to him, and what he will suffer for it is more hateful to him. Now, among other goods of this life, man loves most his own life.” As merit does not continue after death, he observes that the merit of martyrdom consists “in the voluntary endurance of death.” The merit exists and continues while he is suffering persecution and, in spite of it, cleaving to truth and justice. Death itself belongs to martyrdom, not as that which gives it its merit, but insofar as martyrdom is a sign. St. Thomas observes that, on one hand, men will suffer many lesser things besides death for far lesser goods, and, on the other, that other sacrifices, such as those borne in living a life of chastity are not as perfect in witnessing to the eyes of men that it is done for love of Christ. By suffering death the Christian bears the most perfect witness to the truth and justice of Christ.
We can then distinguish two things in martyrdom; one is the charity which moves the Christian to despise even his own life in order to cleave to the faith of Christ and the other is the actual suffering of death as a witness to Christ. But we must draw still a further distinction. People have been willing to die in the name of Islam or Hinduism or any number of ideologies and beliefs. In doing so, they witness an ability of man to love even the wrong thing more than their own life. Nor would we count as martyrs those who die for truths of science, as such- though St. Thomas observes that if one dies in order to avoid a lie, even a lie about geometry, that that can be martyrdom inasmuch as he is witnessing against a sin and hence cleaving to the faith and justice of Christ. Martyrs “bear witness to the truth, not to any which truth, but to the truth which is according to that godliness which was made known to us by Christ.” It would follow, therefore, that in order to have the perfection of a martyr, one must die for the very faith Christ has taught. To be separated from the Catholic Church, which is the body of Christ, is to be, as far as external appearance goes, against that very faith to the degree that one lacks both the faith He has taught and membership in His body. Coptic Orthodox most certainly lack the unity which properly belongs to Christ’s Church and cannot be counted as actual members of the same. As non-members of Christ, they cannot therefore be perfect witnesses to the godliness taught by Christ.
Pope Francis affirms a “ecumenism of blood” through the examples of various Christians who have been killed by anti-Christian militants. He has also called these recent Coptic victims martyrs. In doing so he cites the non-discriminate nature of the anti-Christian hatred that has driven the murderers. Looking at martyrdom more completely, we must say that we cannot truly ascribe to them the title of martyr, at least not unequivocally. We have seen both a formal and a material element to martyrdom. The formal is the voluntary endurance of suffering for the sake of Christ, born out of true charity. The material is the suffering even of death in such a way as to witness to the faith of Christ, not just in doctrine but also in deed. With respect to the latter we must affirm that anyone outside the Church, and indeed publicly heretical or schismatic, even if they are in good faith and are only materially so, cannot be held as witnesses to the Catholic and Apostolic faith. This is not to deny that they cannot witness, in some imperfect way, that faith insofar as they share common elements. And indeed, Pope Francis, in pointing out that the murderers do not care whether they are Catholic or Orthodox or protestant, is pointing to a certain commonality in their witness. They are being killed because of hatred of Christ. That non-Catholics do not, in this act, witness to the fullness of the faith and justice of Christ, does not take away that they do share a witness to Christ.
With respect to the formal aspect of martyrdom, God alone can be the judge. It is certainly possible that, although not actual members of the Church, that their adherence to a schismatic group is only material and that they err in good faith—the decree of Florence referring to those formally heretical and schismatic. And hence, united virtually to the Church through faith and charity, were truly motivated by charity not to renounce Christ but to suffer for Him. It is even possible, even had their adherence been formal, that faced with such persecution they may have been moved by God’s grace to turn away from any defect in their life and belief and cleave to Him. God can search the hearts of men, and God will be their judge, whether to crown them for suffering for Christ or not.
But here among the Church militant, it does not belong to us to crown them martyrs in any strict sense. We must not enroll them in the martyrology and we must consider, even if it is only external, the defect of unity with the Church that exists with other Christians. Saints in general, and specifically martyrs are recognized not merely for making it to heaven, but because of their being exemplars of Christ, in their lives, their confessing the faith and in their deaths. There may be many who will be counted at Christ’s right hand on the judgment day that, in their lives here do not warrant such consideration and rank as to have public veneration. Because of the defectiveness of the confession of the Christian faith, and because of the utmost important of the unity of the Church for salvation, these victims, while they and their families should certainly be in our prayers, are not true martyrs insofar as their witness to Christ is defective. At the same time, we can acknowledge that they are being persecuted because of their profession of Christ and can join together on a common front against the persecutors. But if we treat them as being equal witnesses and true martyrs, we must ignore or denigrate the importance of remaining in the bosom of the Church as we would be holding them up as exemplars of Christ, despite their schism from the body of Christ; to do that would constitute a witness, not to Christ, but to indifference concerning the Church He established.
 [Sancrosancta Romana ecclesia] Firmiter credit, profitetur et predicat nullos extra ecclesiam catholicam existentes, non solum paganos, sed nec Iudeos aut haereticos atque schismaticos eterne vite fieri posse participes, sed in ignum eternum ituros, qui paratus est dyabolo et angelis eius, nisi ante finem vite eidem fuerint aggregati, tantumque valere ecclesiatici corporis unitatem, ut solis in ea manentibus ad salutem ecclesiastica sacramenta proficiant et ieiunia, elemosine ac cetera pietatis officia et exercitia militie christiane premia eterna parturiant, neminemque quantascunque elemosina fecerit, et si pro Christi nomine sanguinem effuderit, posse salvari, nisi in catholice ecclesie gremio et unitate permanserit. – Conc. Florent. Sessio XI, Bulla unionis Coptorum, Feb. 4, 1442. cf. Fulgentius, De fide 38, 39
S. Th. II-II q. 124
S. Th. II-II q. 124 a. 3 co.
S. Th. II-II q. 124 a. 4 ad 4
S. Th. II-II q. 124 a. 4 ad 2
S. Th. II-II q. 124 a. 5 co.
Conc. Vatican II, Orientalium Ecclesiarum §2
Pius XII, Mystici corporis 22